Does Means Testing Exacerbate Early Retirement?

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1 Does Means Testing Exacerbate Early Retirement? James Sefton andjustinvandeven 1 Introduction The means testing of pension benefits has been heavily criticised for discouraging savings and work effort, and consequently creating a dependence on the welfare state. Yet means testing does lead to a more equal society. This paper examines the trade-off. We show that, even-though targeting pension income at the less well off does generate incentives not to save and not to work for those on low incomes, it need not lower aggregate saving and work participation levels. This is because the incentive effects for the poor are offset by those for the rich. Furthermore, our analysis suggests that increases in means testing of pensions will usually assist low income households at the expense of those on middle incomes, suggesting that current pension policy initiatives to limit the extent of means testing may strike an acceptable balance between economic distortions and redistributive social objectives. The Government s motive for increasing its reliance on means testing is obvious; it promises a way of ensuring that everyone has an adequate income, while at the same time controlling costs by reducing eligibility to benefits. Means testing of pension benefits is also an effective way of redistributing income. By focussing state pensions on poorer households, the aggregate costs associated with pension provision can be limited, which enables a more generous state pension to be offered - money which is, in effect, taken from richer households. Draft - Preliminary and Incomplete. Please do not quote without the prior permission of the authors. The Business School, Imperial College London, and NIESR. NIESR. 1

2 The more precise the focus of pension provision, the smaller the associated burden on the public s purse. As the costs of pension provision are set to increase with the growing longevity of the population, it is likely that means testing will remain an integral part of pension policy for the foreseeable future. A means tested pension policy does, however, introduce incentive traps that couldbothincreaserelianceonbenefits and exacerbate the problems of early retirement. This is because means testing of pension benefits erodes the returns to saving, which reduces incentives to save for retirement. Reduced self provision for retirement is described by both lower personal savings during the working lifetime, and by the decision to take early retirement, exhaust all personal savings by the state pensionable age, and to live off the state pension and means tested benefits thereafter. It is important to take these incentive effects into consideration when attempting to evaluate pensions policy alternatives, which is the focus of the current paper. Specifically, we attempt to quantify the trade-off between the desirable and undesirable consequences of means testing - the trade-off between redistribution and economic distortions. The quantification of the trade-off is undertaken by comparing the current means tested pensions policy with other possible policy alternatives using a new model of household savings behaviour developed at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The policy alternatives considered include; raising the state retirement age to 70, increasing the generosity of the universal Basic Pension to current levels of the Minimum Income Guarantee, and leaving the decision to make any further provision beyond this basic level entirely up to individuals. Section 2 provides useful background discussion, including a brief description of the current pension system in the UK, an outline of recent pension policy reforms, and some official projections for the future. Analysis based upon observations drawn from survey data is presented in Section 3, with particular emphasis placed upon the behaviour responses to means testing. The NIESR retirement model is briefly described in Section 4, before presenting analysis 2

3 based upon output from the model in Section 5. This analysis focuses upon the trade-off between the distortionary effects, and the redistributive effects of means tested pension policy. Conclusions are summarised in Section 6. 2 Pensions in the UK In its first term, the Labour Government created a very redistributive and distortionary pension system. Later reforms can be seen as attempts to ameliorate the distortionary incentives, firstly by reducing taper rates, and secondly by increasing the generosity of second tier pension benefits which inevitably must lead to a higher level of taxes. This section provides a brief review of current pension policy, the pension policy reforms that have been undertaken during New Labour s period of Government, and associated budgetary projections for the future. 2.1 The Current UK Pension System The UK pension system is often classified into three tiers. The first tier consists of the basic state pension; the second tier of all government run contributory pensions benefits (the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme, SERPS, and the Second State Pension, S2P); and the third tier of all private pension schemes. All retired individuals who satisfy a set of contributory requirements are eligible for a basic state pension. The maximum amount payable depends on the proportion of the working lifetime that National Insurance Contributions have been paid (or credited). Other than this contributory requirement, the basic state pension is a flat rate benefit that is currently worth per week to a single person. If a spouse does not have their own pension entitlement, a dependant premium is payable (currently per week), and the spouse will continue to be entitled to a single person s benefit after the death of their partner. The second tier state pension is a defined benefit pension. Until recent reforms, the benefit payable was entirely related to the contributor s average 3

4 earnings over their working lifetime. Membership to the second tier state pension is compulsory for all employees (but not the self-employed), unless the employee has contracted out into a private pension scheme. The second tier system, was administered under the SERPS until April 2002, when it became the S2P. The S2P is more generous to those on low-incomes. Unlike SERPS, individuals with incomes below the lower earnings threshold (currently 11,200 per year) earn S2P entitlements as if their income was at the lower earnings threshold. Furthermore, when S2P was introduced, the generosity of the entitlements was doubled for those earning the lower earnings threshold. This extra entitlement is subject to a taper rate so that those earning above the upper earnings threshold (currently 25,592 per year) receive entitlements at their previous SERPS level. The third tier of the pension system is comprised of private pension schemes, of which there are two types: occupational pensions and personal pensions. Contributions into these schemes are made out of pre-tax income, so that contributions are effectively subsidised (at the basic tax rate) by the Government. An occupational pension can usually be classified as either a defined benefit scheme (where the benefits are earnings related), or as a defined contribution scheme (where the benefits are related to the value of the accumulated contributions). Personal pensions are always run on a defined contribution basis Principal Means Tested Retirement Benefits In addition to the state pension system there are a number of retirement benefits that are target toward those with low income. There are four principal benefits that are means tested. Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG): The MIG ensures that each retired household receives a minimum level of income. Currently, this level of income is equal to per week for a single pensioner, and per week for a couple. Any private income, including benefits received from private pensions and earnings, is entirely deducted from the benefit 4

5 - in other words, MIG is subject to a taper rate of 100%. Furthermore, benefits paid under the MIG are also withdrawn in proportion to any accumulated non-housing capital. Specifically, the first 6,000 of assets are ignored, after which 1 is withdrawn from the benefits paid under the MIG for every 250 of capital or part thereof, up to the maximum assets threshold of 12,000. Those households with assets greater than 12,000 receive no benefits. For individuals in residential care, the thresholds are 10,000 and 16,000, respectively. The Pension Credit: In October 2003, the Pension Credit is to be introduced. This reform effectively reduces the taper rate on the MIG to 40% of gross private income for those who have a full basic pension. Households will receive their additional benefits partly as an income support payment (the pension guarantee element) and partly as a tax credit. The income support payment is the amount required to top-up household income to the MIG. The tax credit component is the additional payment required to reduce the taper rate from 100% to 40%. 1 Housing Benefit: Low income households living in rented accommodation may be eligible for housing benefits. The level of these awards will generally cover the rent paid by the household up to a given threshold, which is set by the local authority; but on average they are worth in the region of 3,000 per year. Housing benefits are withdrawn at a rate 65% for any other net income over the MIG (some disability payments are ignored). There is also an asset-based test which is almost identical to the asset based test operating for the MIG. 2 1 The asset-based test on the MIG is also to be reformed. As is currently the case, the first 6,000 of assets will be ignored, but thereafter an income is imputed to any savings above this threshold at a rate of 10% a year (this is approximately half the rate of the current MIG asset based test). 2 WiththeintroductionofthePensionCreditinOctober2003,therewillbeasubstantial increase in the level of income allowances before which housing benefits are withdrawn. This is to ensure that pensioners who benefit from the (pension) credit do not see their gains clawed backthroughareductionintheirhousingbenefit orcounciltaxbenefit. This pledge can be interpreted as meaning that any household with a private income, that includes their basic state pension but not any income support, less than the pension guarantee income receives 5

6 Council Tax Rebates: Low income households are eligible for a 100% council tax rebate. These rebates are withdrawn (simultaneously with housing benefits) at a rate of 20% for any other net income over the MIG. The asset-based test is identical to the asset-based test operating for housing benefit. 2.2 Historical Background Improving the living standards of poorer pensioners has been a major objective of government policy since Labour came to power in 1997; The Government s first priority has been to help those in greatest need....too many pensioners have not shared in the rising prosperity of the country. 3 The Labour Government has consequently introduced a series of policy initiatives that have significantly altered pension provision in the UK. In their earlier reforms, the Government developed the idea of means tested pension guarantee that ensured every pensioner would have an adequate income in retirement, but limited the cost to the taxpayer by targeting the resources at low income households; this is the redistributive element. However, these reforms created significant incentives for individuals not to save for retirement and possibly to retire early; this is the economic efficiency or, more accurately, inefficiency element. Therefore, the later reforms - the Second State Pension and the Pension Credit - can be understood as attempts to counter the distortions induced by the pension guarantee, by increasing the incentives to work and to save. The Labour Chancellor, Gordon Brown, made his intentions clear in his first Comprehensive Spending Review (July 1998), when he announced an above inflation increase in (means tested) income support for pensioners as a first step to establishing a means tested Minimum Income Guarantee (MIG). 4 Every budget since then has seen large rises in the level of the MIG until, by April 2003, full housing benefits. For any income above this, housing benefit is withdrawn at a rate of 65p for every 1 of net income. The asset based test remains unchanged. 3 Pre-Budget Report 2001, Section 5.42: Tackling Pensioner Poverty. 4 Nearly all individuals who have spent the majority of their working years in employment will receive a full basic pension, worth per week to a single pensioner in April Those pensioners with no additional private income are eligible to claim further income support, to increase their total pension income to per week. 6

7 the gap between the level of the basic pension and the MIG for a single pensioner had risen to per week (from 5.75 in April 1998). Furthermore, in his Pre-Budget Speech in 2001, the Chancellor announced his pledge to increase the MIG at least in line with earnings for the rest of the current Parliament, and has made it a Government aim that it should remain indexed with earnings thereafter. As the basic pension is set to rise in line with prices, the gap between it and the MIG will continue to grow in the future. The withdrawal rate for MIG, as with all other income support, is 100%, or 1 for every 1 of private income. Therefore an individual with a weekly private pension income of less is no better off than an individual with no private income. There is, therefore, no incentive for families on low incomes to save. To respond to the disincentive effects on savings of the MIG the Chancellor also announced, in the same Pre-Budget speech of 2001, the introduction of a Pension Credit from October This credit effectively reduces the withdrawal rate of the MIG from 100% to 40%. Given the Pension Credit, a single pensioner with a private income of will be better off than one with no private income. Although this has increased the incentive to save, the effective rates of return to savings are still low and can be negative. Since 1997 the Chancellor has moved the system of basic pension benefits from one based on universality (the contributory requirements were not very stringent, at least since 1978) to one increasingly based on means testing. The Pension Credit is one attempt to reduce the distortionary or inefficiency effects of means testing by reducing the taper rate. Another approach is to ensure that those who have paid a sufficient number of years of compulsory National Insurance Contributions have a second tier or earnings related pension, which is too high for them to be eligible for means tested benefits. Thisisthe approach adopted by the later set of reforms to the second tier contributory pension schemes. In December 1998 the Government published their green paper A New Contract for Welfare: A Partnership in Pensions which proposed a complete reform of this contributory component of the pension system. The 7

8 idea was that the second tier system would be designed to pay out a flat rate State Second Pension (S2P) to everyone who had paid a sufficient number of years of contributions. Each person s S2P was funded from forced contributions out of their income during their working life, with those on low incomes having their contributions topped-up annually so that, in effect, there was enough in their notional fund to pay the flat rate S2P. In April 2002, the top-up element of the State Second Pension was introduced. The transition to flat rate benefits was originally set to be in 2006/7 but this date was postponed indefinitely in the 2002 Pension Green Paper, pending further consultation. The State Second Pension is designed to ensure that all those with a long work history are guaranteed a pension that is sufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living. These individuals would not, therefore, be reliant on means tested benefits in retirement. But, by breaking any link between the size of the contributions paid and the size of the pension received, the contributions paid look more like a tax. Someone on a low income who decides to work longer hours, or receives a small pay rise, will pay a greater amount in contributions but receive the same amount in pension benefits when they retire. 5 Therefore, for those on low incomes, the only contributory component remaining in this system is the link between the number of years worked and size of the pension received. 6 The recent changes made to the state second pension are consequently similar to an alternative policy of raising taxes to pay out a more generous universal basic pension 2.3 Projections for the Future Projections of Government expenditure on the different pension benefits provide a measure for assessing the shift in Government policy towards means tested benefits. Figure 1 consequently plots current best estimates of projected Gov- 5 Individuals who earn more that the Upper Earning Limit for National Insurance Contributions do not pay higher contributions for any increase in income. National Insurance Contributions are consequently subject to a regressive rate structure. 6 Only those earning more than the National Insurance Lower Earnings Limit will be considered as making a contribution to their S2P. Until the S2P goes flat rate, it can be regarded asadirectsubstituteforprivatesavings. Infact,theimplicitratesofreturnmaketheS2P look a very attractive substitute for private savings. 8

9 7.00% 6.00% 5.00% %o GDP 4.00% 3.00% 2.00% 1.00% 0.00% MIG Pension Credit Housing & Council Tax Benefits Basic Pension SERPS and S2P Figure 1: Projected Government Expenditure on Selected State Benefits - Basic State Pension Indexed to Prices. ernment expenditure on pension benefits in the long term. 7 These estimates are based on the assumption that the Government will adhere to its policy of increasing the Basic Pension, and the National Insurance Lower and Upper Earnings Limits, in line with prices, and increasing the level of the pension guarantee in line with wages. These projections estimate that expenditure on means tested retirement benefits will rise from 0.4% to 1.7% of GDP, or from 9% to 37% of total pension expenditure over the next 60 years. If we include housing benefits and council tax rebates paid to retired households as part of state pension expenditure, then expenditure on means tested benefits is expected to rise from 16.5% to 44.7% of total pension expenditure. This dramatic rise in the percentage of expenditure on means tested pension benefits is the result of two trends; the decline in the expenditure on the universal basic pension, and the rise in expenditure on the Pension Credit as a percentage of GDP. From Figure 1, it can be seen that total pension expenditure on pension 7 These estimates are sourced from the National Institute Generational Accounting Model, which was built in conjunction with HM Treasury. The model uses a range of sources, the principal for pension expenditure projections being the long term projections of the Government Actuary Department. 9

10 benefits is not projected to rise over the next 30 to 40 years, despite the well publicised increases in the dependency ratio. 8 In fact, if it were not for the recent reforms, total expenditure on pension benefits as a percentage of GDP would actually be projected to fall. If total expenditure is expected to remain roughly a constant proportion of GDP, where do all the doomsday predictions about mushrooming pension expenditures caused by the ageing of the population come from? And if the doomsday predictions are fundamentally inaccurate, does the government have any justifiable reason for not providing a universal (rather than means tested) state pension? In fact, the principal reason that the UK is considered to be one of the developed countries least exposed to rising fiscal pressure from ageing is the result of the projected increase in dependence on means testing. 9 The targeting of pensions on low income households will significantly reduce total Government pension expenditure. If, instead, we assumed that Government policy was to increase the basic pension in line with average earnings (rather than prices) - to ensure that the retired population share in the country s growth - then the best estimates of projected expenditures look very different. Figure 2 reproduces Figure 1 under the assumption that the basic pension is indexed to wages rather than to prices. Now expenditure on means tested benefits rises only from 16.5% of total expenditure to just over 18%. However, total Government expenditure on pension benefits rises from just over 5% to just under 8% of GDP. Pensions expenditure provides an incomplete story of the support that the Welfare State provides to the retired. In particular, approximately 40-45% of government expenditure on health and long term care is spent on the elderly, and this expenditure is expected to rise sharply as the population ages. 10 There 8 The dependency ratio is the number of people over the age of 65 to the number of people ofworkingage,ages16to65. FortheUKthisrateisexpectedtorisefrom25%tonearly 45% over the next 30 years. 9 It is also partly because UK fertility rates have not dropped as low as in some developed countries. The fertility rate in the UK is about 1.6 (average number of children per woman over their lifetime) compared to 1.3 in Italy or 1.1 in Spain. 10 This figure was sourced from the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the London School of Economics as 42.6% in

11 % GDP 9.0% 8.0% 7.0% 6.0% 5.0% 4.0% 3.0% 2.0% 1.0% 0.0% MIG Pension Credit Housing & Council Tax Benefits Basic Pension SERPS and S2P Figure 2: Projected Government Expenditure on Selected State Benefits - Basic State Pension Indexed to Wages. are, of course, enormous uncertainties surrounding any projections on health expenditure due, for example, to uncertainties in estimating future morbidity rates, and the impact of any new treatments. Nevertheless, health expenditure is currently 7.2% of GDP (this figures includes long term care as well as NHS expenditure), and is projected to rise to anything between 10% (HMT, Long Term Fiscal Sustainability Report) and 11% (Wanless Report) of GDP by Furthermore, this figure is likely to continue to rise thereafter and, even under very conservative assumptions, is projected to account for 12% of GDP by 2050 (HMT). Aggregating these two scenarios - pension expenditure rising in line with earnings and the increase in health expenditure - it easy to understand the Government s concerns regarding the potential for ballooning demands on the public purse associated with an aging population. Overall spending in just these twoareascouldrisebynearly8%ofgdp,requiringariseinthebasicrateof 11 The Wanless Report projects expenditure under three different scenarios. We have taken the average and made an adjustment to these figures to remove private sector spending and to include government spending on long term care. 11

12 tax of the order of 23p per Incentive Effects of Means Testing - evidence from survey data Almost all individuals have some entitlement to the Basic State Pension when they reach state pensionable age, as a result of either their own, or their spouse s National Insurance Contributions. In addition, approximately 80% of retired households 13 have some private pension income, either from a private pension or the SERPS. The pension income of many households, however, is below the level that is required to sustain an adequate standard of living (we shall define this level as the MIG). Households with pension income below the MIG are eligible to claim additional support - principally through means tested benefits -thoughasignificant minority do not. In Figure 3 we have used data from the 2001/2 Family Resource Survey (FRS) to represent graphically the redistributional consequences of mean-tested pension benefits. Figure 3 divides the population of single retired adults described by the FRS into quintile groups, based upon their private income (defined as the sum of private pension income, earnings and investment income). The bars displayed in Figure 3 indicate the average income received by each quintile group, distinguished by income source. The aggregate of these components gives gross household income. Total Net Income, obtained after the deduction of associated taxes, is also reported in the figure. Figure 3 dramatically demonstrates the effects of means testing, revealing that total disposable (net) income is approximately constant for 80% of the population, despite large differences in average private income. The fourth quintile receives an average private income of 118 per week, compared with an average of 0 for the lowest quintile - nevertheless, the average disposable 12 A rise of in the basic income tax rate of 1p is estimated to raise about 3.5 Bn. The estimate of 23p is a simple scaling up of this figure and does not take into account the effects on the economy of such a large increase in income tax rates. 13 This figure was calculated from Family Resource Survey. For the younger of these retired households, where all member adults where under the age of 70, the figure was slightly higher at 83.6%. 12

13 per week Total Net Income Private Income Quintile Group Private Income Basic Pension and Income Support Housing Benefits and Council Tax Disability Benefits Other Income Figure 3: Breakdown of Total Income for Single Retired Adults, by Private Income Quintile income earned by the fourth quintile is only 5 more per week than the lowest quintile. 14 It is clear that these effects represent a large disincentive to save. The figure also shows the relative importance of the different means tested benefits in deriving this result. The income support award is calculated as the amount required to bring household income up to the level of the MIG; 98 in 2001/2 for a single pensioner. Therefore a household with some private income, though still below the MIG, looses 1 of income support for every 1 of private income; a 100% taper rate. In Figure 3, the aggregate of income from private sources, the basic state pension and the MIG, are equal to approximately 100 for the first three quintiles. Low-income households, living in rented accommodation, will be eligible for help towards their rental payments. If they receive a MIG payment it is likely this would cover their entire rental costs and they would 14 Of the 118 of private income earned on average by households in the fourth quintile, 103 is attributable to private pension income, 11 to investment income and the remaining 4 to earnings. 13

14 Total Net Income per week Private Income Quintile Group Private Income Basic Pension and Income Support Housing Benefits and Council Tax Disability Benefits Other Income Figure 4: Breakdown of Total Income of Two Adult Retired Households by Private Income Quintile probably receive a council tax rebate. 15 Both these benefits are means tested, and are withdrawn for any household whose net income is above the MIG at a rate of 65% for housing benefits and 20% for council tax rebates. The 1st quintile income group receives an average of 36 per week from these benefits whereas the 2nd and 3rd receive only about 13, and the 4th quintile receive nothing. Figure 4 restates Figure 3 for households comprised of two retired adults (rather than single retired individuals). The results displayed in Figure 4 suggest that retired couples are less severely affected by means testing that singles, which is partly because two adult households have a higher private income on average, and partly because a far greater percentage do not live in rented accommodation. However the results are qualitatively the same. Households with significantly more private income only have a marginally higher total net income % of households in the lowest quintile live in rented accommodation, and 66% receive housing benefit. 14

15 The analysis presented above is based upon data drawn from the 2001/2 Family Resource Survey. In October 2003 the Pension Credit reform will be introduced. This effectively reduces the taper rate on the MIG from 100% to 40%. Consequently, it is reasonable to suspect that survey data for subsequent years will indicate a less extreme effect of means testing than the observations reported here. However, taper rates for some of the retired population who receive housing benefits, council tax rebates and the Pension Credit, will remain at approximately 93%. Furthermore, a larger proportion of the population will receive means tested benefits, as those with higher incomes are made eligible. Consequently, it is not clear how effective the Pension Credit will be at reducing the impact of means testing for the retired. Another consideration is that the short run effects of the reform are likely to be very different to the long run effects. In the short run, there will be no significant change to the amounts retired households have saved, and so the effects of the reform will be more predictable. In the long run, however, individuals are likely to change the way they save. The difficulty associated with predicting the savings response to the introduction of the Pension Credit means that it is a much harder job to predict the long-term consequences of the policy change. In Section 5, we use the National Institute household behavioural model to analyse the possible long-term outcomes. This section has clearly demonstrated the advantages of means testing. It targets resources at low income households, and so reduces levels of poverty amongst the retired population whilst retaining some restraint on costs. It can also be seen as providing insurance for all against adverse lifetime income shocks. An individual starting their working life is insured to some extent against poverty in retirement, whatever the outcome during their working life. In this sense it must also reduce lifetime income uncertainty for all and, given the weak assumption that we prefer less uncertainty, is associated with consequent welfare benefits. Unfortunately these redistributional and insurance benefits come at a cost. They create disincentives to both work and to save. In the 15

16 next two subsections we use observations drawn from survey data to develop a feeling for the importance and size of these economic distortions. 3.1 Means Testing and the Incentives to Save One of the principal motives for saving is to make provision for retirement. Means testing retirement benefits reduces the benefits to this saving. At the extreme, it can remove these benefits entirely. If an individual saves a modest amount so as to have an extra 20 per week in retirement income, but loses 20 in benefits, then the net gain from this savings is zero. This individual would have been better off not saving at all and consuming more during their working lifetime. Therefore, means testing of benefits creates disincentives to save and it could be expected that these disincentives would be particularly strong for low-income households approaching retirement. This section uses survey data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) to search for evidence that low income households have a lower propensity to save than higher income households. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we do find strong evidence to support this prediction. It is important to recognise, however, that there are reasons other than the incentive effects of means testing that can explain why low-income households save less relative to high-income households, some of which are: 1. If households like to sustain their standard of living, then the universal basic pension provides a far greater proportion of desired retirement income for low-income households than it does for high-income households. Low-income households would therefore save proportionally less. 2. If we accept that a certain income is required to sustain a minimum nondiscretionary level of consumption, then low-income households have less flexibility to save. 3. If the access to funds of low-income households is limited (or prohibitively expensive), then the possibility of suffering an adverse shock may imply 16

17 that low-income households will be less willing to tie up their funds in a long term savings account - they might rather keep their savings liquid in case of such an event. This is conceptually equivalent to a lower effective rate of return on their savings. Hence, observing that low-income households save less is not overwhelming evidence for the power of the disincentive effects of means testing. Nevertheless, the absence of such evidence would present a strong case against the practical relevance of means testing incentive effects. With respect to this last point, however, it is important to bear in mind that the massive expansion of means testing has been a recent phenomenon, and so it may take many years before the full behavioural effects are observable in wealth data. The BHPS has followed a representative sample of about 7000 households over the past 12 years. Every year these households are interviewed in detail about, amongst other things, their earnings and pension arrangements in the previous year. Furthermore, in both 1995/6 and 2000/1, they were asked detailed questions about their assets (both housing and financial). From this information it is possible to estimate the total net wealth of each household in see van de Ven and Sefton (2003) for details. In Figure 5 we display the distribution of wealth for households, in which the reference person is a single adult aged between As before we have split this sample up into five quintile groups based on their gross take home pay, which includes any labour earnings plus benefit income. For each quintile group we calculate the percentages that have total wealth less than 10,000, between 10,000 and 50,000, between 50,000 and 100,000, and between 100,000 and 250,0000 respectively. We also calculate the average total net household income - take home pay plus any investment and transfer income - for this group. All this information is plotted in Figure 5, with the wealth percentages plotted against the left hand axis and the net income variable against the right handaxis. Wehavealsoplottedthesameinformationfortheentiresamplein the column marked Average. 17

18 1, % 1,200 75% 1,000 50% per Week 25% % Average Income Quintile Group Wealth < 10,000 Wealth < 50,000 Wealth < 100,000 Wealth < 250,000 Wealth > 250,000 Household Income (RHS) 0 Figure 5: Distribution of Wealth by Income Quintile for Single Adult Households Aged between 45 and 55 Of the sampled households, 37% have aggregate wealth below 10,000, and almost all of the households with assets less than 10,000 (90%) are concentrated in the bottom 3 income quintiles. The households with aggregate assets worth less than 10,000 have an average wealth of only 500, which is comprised of approximately 1,000 of pension wealth and 500 of debt. Similarly 30% of the sample have assets in excess of 100,000, of which 90% are concentrated in the top three income quintiles. Of these households approximately half of their assets are in housing and half in pensions. Only a very small percentage of aggregate household wealth is held in other financial assets (less than 4000 on average). Figure 5 also suggests that low-income households save proportionally less than high income households. Comparing the 2nd and 5th quintiles, the ratio of average incomes is just approximately 1:3, but the ratio of median wealth is 1:64. Although caution should be exercised when attempting to use cross-sectional wealth data (a stock variable) to infer measures of saving (a flow variable), the size of the difference between these two ratios is difficult to explain 18

19 Average Adult Household Lone Parent Household Single Adult Household Figure 6: Median Wealth to Average Income Ratio by Income Quintile for Households aged between 45 and 55 if the savings rate does not increase with income. 16 These results are plotted more clearly in Figure 6. Figure 6 plots the ratio of median wealth to average income for income quintiles. It is necessary to look at the median wealth levels, rather than the average, as the wealth distributions are very heavily skewed (one rich family can have an enormous impact on the average wealth of the group, but only asmallaffect on the median). The choice of reporting this figure relative to average income, rather than median income makes little difference (< 5%) as the households are sorted by income. Furthermore, the sample of single adult households has been split into two, those with dependant children and those without. The behaviour of these two types is slightly different for the highincome quintiles. The figure clearly reveals that lower ratios of wealth to income 16 This is particularly the case, given the restrictive age demographic considered in Figure 5, and the strong positive correlation that is typically observed for individual income data from one year to the next. 19

20 are observed for the lower income quintiles, which suggests that low-income households save proportionally less than high-income households. In fact lowincome single adult households appear to save very little. In Figure 6, similar results are plotted for two adult households. 17 Figure 7 reports wealth distributions for two adult households in the same format as Figure 5. As was observed at the beginning of the current section, the results are less marked for couples than for single adult households, which is expected given that two adult households have far higher incomes on average. The differences between the income of couples and singles is made clear by comparing Figures 5 and 7, from which it can be seen that the average income of the 3rd quintile for single adult households is approximately equal to the average income of the 1st quintile for two adult households. Despite the need to take into consideration the greater needs of larger households, the income differences discussed here suggest that two adult households earn higher incomes than single adults. Again, with regard to couples, the low-income households save proportionally far less than high-income households. 3.2 Means Testing and Incentives to Work The means testing of retirement benefits reduces the return, and therefore the benefits, of saving. This is likely to encourage individuals on low-incomes to consume more while of working age, and to save less for their retirement. Alternatively they could retire early, consume their savings before retirement and live off retirement benefits later. This, economically, can be seen as equivalent to consuming more - rather than consuming additional goods, individuals who retire early are consuming additional leisure. Figure 8 indicates how male participation rates in full-time employment have changed over the last 30 years for the age bands of and year olds. This figure reveals that there has been a dramatic downward trend in employment rates for males in both age groups, with reductions of over 30% 17 In the 2001/2 Family Resource Survey there are about 1000 single males, 1500 single females, and 2500 couples aged between 45 and

21 1, % 1,200 75% 1,000 50% per Week 25% % Average Income Quintile Group Wealth < 10,000 Wealth < 50,000 Wealth < 100,000 Wealth < 250,000 Wealth > 250,000 Household Income (RHS) 0 Figure 7: Distribution of Wealth by Income Quintile for Two Adult Households aged between 45 and 55 observed between 1980 and The largest falls are observed during the two recessionary periods, and with employment rates remaining relatively constant outside of these periods. In contrast female employment rates have remained constant over the whole period at about 35% for women aged between and at about 15% for those aged This is possibly because the trends towards early retirement have been offset by the trend towards greater female labour market participation. The concern is that these increases in early retirement are likely to be economically costly. If individuals are leaving the labour market to move onto benefits, then this in itself will impose a large fiscal burden. Furthermore, these individuals, once out of the labour market, are unlikely to be saving for their retirement after 65. In fact they are more likely to be dissaving. It is therefore also more likely that they will be eligible for and receive additional income support benefits once they are over the state retirement age, imposing a more substantial burden on the welfare state. 21

22 % LPR Men Aged Men Aged Source: Figure 3.1, Banks et al. (2002) - reproduced with kind permission from the authors Figure 8: Male Labour Participation Rates by Age Consequentially it is important to determine the reasons why individuals are retiring earlier. Is it those individuals who have saved throughout their working life so as to buy some leisure at the end? Is it individuals with relatively low levels of savings, buying leisure in their last few working years in the knowledge that they will be supported by means tested benefits in retirement? Or is it individuals that lose their jobs through forced redundancy or ill-health and are unable to find suitable further employment? It is difficult to determine which of these alternatives is the true reason for any individual. Asking people directly is fraught with difficulties; the most pertinent being that there is a tendency for people to answer such questions with an ex-post justification for their current condition rather than their ex-ante reasons. To attempt to estimate the reason from observed data, would require one to observe an individual s wealth, income and consumption over the years up to early retirement and during retirement. Unfortunately no such data set exists. In our paper Playing the Generation 22

23 Game (Kirsanova et al., 2002), we built on the work of Banks et al. (1998) to try and answer this question, not for individuals, but for a cohort of individuals sharing common characteristics. 18 The following figures attempt to illustrate the findings of that research. The Family Resource Survey breaks down the employment status of individuals into five broad categories; those who are in full time work (either employed or self-employed), those in part-time work, those who are receiving invalidity benefits (the sick ), those who are receiving unemployment benefits, and the retired. 19 In Figure 9 we record the percentage of men aged 50-54, and in each of these employment status groups. We also divide each of these groups into sub-groups according to their total household income; the sum of earnings, benefits, investment income and pensions to all members of the household. 20 The income groups are defined as those with a household income less than 10,000 per year, between 10,000 and 20,000 per year, between 20,000 and 30,000 per year and above 30,000 per year. The percentage of men in full time work with a household income less than 20,000 per year is relatively constant across the age groups. There is a large fall of roughly 30%, however, in the percentage earning more than 30,000 per year and a less pronounced fall in the percentage with an income between 20,000 and 30,000 per year over the age groups. There is a corresponding increase in the percentage retired and sick across the age groups, with a small increase in the number of part time workers. It would, of course, be wrong to say that this implies that it is only those with an income greater than 20,000 who leave the labour market as they get older. It could, for example, be that those on 18 This work applies the cohort approach of Deaton (1985) to the issue of early retirement. In the UK, the only survey that ask individual s about their entire expenditure in any given period is the Family Expenditure Survey (FES). This survey is repeated annually, but each year a different representative sample is interviewed. Deaton s idea is to trace cohorts who share common characteristics such as age, sex, educational qualifications through these series of cross-sectional surveys. By averaging the responses of individuals in the cohort the aim is to attenuate the idiosyncratic elements in any one individual s behaviour. 19 Thereisalsoasmall others category. 20 Whilst it might be thought preferable to sort the sample by their own income, in practise the results would be very sensitive to how one chose to allocate any joint incomes. Further, individual retirement decisions are as likely, if not more, to be based on the total household income. 23

24 80% 70% 60% < 10,000 per Year Between 10,000 and 20,000 per Year Between 20,000 and 30,000 per Year > 30,000 per Year % population 50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0% Full Time Part Time Unemployed Retired Sick Figure 9: Male Employment Status in 2001 by Household Income and Age Bands higher incomes change their jobs to ones less well-paid, and that it is those on low-incomes who retire or become long-term sick. 21 However it is suggestive - especially as there is only weak evidence that an individual s hourly wage rate falls as they get older if they remain continually in employment (see Campbell (1999) and Gregg, Knight and Wadsworth, (1998)). Figure 10 distinguishes the population by their highest educational qualification attained, rather than their household income (as discussed with regard to Figure 9). We differentiate here between three groups; those with a degree level qualification, those with some vocational qualification, and those without any vocational qualification. This has the advantage that one is now tracing a permanent characteristic across the age bands, rather than one that changes over 21 The data are all taken from the year Consequently, it could be that the large differences in the behaviour of alternative cohorts is a reflection of the different economic times that they lived through the so called cohort-specific effects. However drawing similar figures using data from the 1996 survey gives an almost identical picture. There are some differences using data from the 1991 survey, but this is because aggregate labour participation rates were changing rapidly then - see Figure 8. 24

25 80% 70% 60% % population 50% 40% 30% Has no Qualification Has Some Vocational Qualification Has Degree 20% 10% 0% Full Time Part Time Unemployed Retired Sick Figure 10: Male Employment Status and Highest Educational Qualification by Age Bands time such as income. Furthermore, this characteristic is highly correlated with lifetime income - an individual with a degree earns 60% more than one without on average, and one with some vocational qualification earns about 25% more than one without. However the disadvantage is that there has been a significant trend since the 1940s in the percentage participating in tertiary education. 22 In our sample, 15% have a degree in the year old band, 16.5% of the year olds and just over 20% of the year olds. Nevertheless, the picture revealed by Figure 10 is relatively clear. Those with a degree are the most likely to retire. About 60% of individuals with a degree in full time work at age leave full time work by age 60-64, with the majority retiring or moving into part-time employment; only a very small fraction are likely to become long-term sick. 23 Of those individuals with some 22 The Dearing Report (Report 6, Section 1) estimates that the Age Participation Index (API), the percentage of 18 year olds participating in Higher Education, rose from 1.8% in 1940 to 5.4% in 1960 and then to 12.4% in These observations were made after adjusting for trends in higher education participation 25

26 vocational qualification and in full time work at age 50-54, 50% are likely to leave work by Roughly two thirds of these will retire or take up parttime work and a third will receive invalidity benefits. Finally of those with no qualification and in full time work at age 50-54, only 40% are likely to leave work by Again two thirds of these will retire or take up part-time work and a third will receive benefits. The data on retirement behaviour are consequently less homogeneous than the data on savings behaviour. This suggests that a number of factors are important in determining retirement age, such as pension arrangements, household composition and job tenure. We have tried to focus here on probably the most important single determinant, lifetime income. In doing so, we have highlighted some clear trends in the data; those with higher incomes are likely to retire earlier. Those with lower incomes are likely to leave full-time work later, and a significant proportion of these are likely to move onto invalidity benefits. What does this imply about the likely effects of changes in the degree of means testing of pension benefits on retirement behaviour? Those households on higher incomes are unlikely to be dependent on these benefits, and so their behaviour is unlikely to change dramatically. Those on low incomes have very low savings, so again their behaviour is unlikely to be dramatically affected since they are likely to be eligible for full benefits regardless of the means testing criteria. Therefore, changes to the means test are likely to have the most substantial effect on middle incomes households. Increases in the severity of the means test is likely to make these individuals work longer, and save more. However, quantifying the impact is difficult. In the next section, we describe briefly the National Institute of Economic and Social Research Retirement Model, and in Section 4.1 we use observations drawn from this model to infer the likely distributional impact of alternative pensions policies. rates. 26

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